In his introduction to this new biography of Yuan Shikai, Patrick Fuliang Shan makes reference to the long-held view of Yuan as a stereotypical historical villain—or, in Chinese, fanmian lishi renwu. The Chinese phrase is perhaps the more apposite, as one literal translation would be “a person on the wrong side of history”. Whatever one’s view of Yuan Shikai, who rose to governmental and military power in the late 19th century before becoming China’s first permanent president in 1912, it is fairly uncontroversial to assert that he ended up, on a few occasions, on what would later come to be viewed as the “wrong side” of various historical moments.
In the introduction to her new book, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang writes that she originally set out to research a book on Sun Yat-sen to see if he really warranted the status of “Father of Modern China”. But the stories of Sun’s wife Soong Ching-ling and her two sisters ended up out-shining his, so Chang decided to write about them instead. What results is a book with two intertwined narratives: one on the sisters of the title and one about Sun.
In 1415, the English forces under Henry V inflicted a terrible defeat on the French army. After the battle, under a heap of dead soldiers, they found and captured a young man who turned out to be Charles, duc d’Orléans (1394-1465). He was taken to England and placed in honorable captivity, but Henry V ordered that he not be ransomed, so he remained in England until his release in 1440. During his 25 years in England, he learned English and wrote a great deal of well-regarded poetry in that language, and when he finally returned home it was remarked that his English was better than his French.
A new book by William Dalrymple is always something of an event. The Anarchy doesn’t disappoint: readable, informative, full of color. Dalrymple lets the protagonists speak for themselves as much as possible, protagonists which thankfully, but not surprisingly given the author, include Indians as much as Europeans.
Manu S Pillai, the acclaimed author of a monumental historical study, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (2015), presents himself here in a somewhat lighter vein, with a series of essays on interesting personalities, known and unknown, from Indian history both before and during British rule.
Frank Dikötter, author of the acclaimed People’s Trilogy, focuses his latest book on the special role personality cults have played in eight eerily effective 20th-century dictatorships. The wryly titled How to Be a Dictator reminds readers of the depressingly similar tactics tyrants have used throughout history to destroy rivals and win acquiescence, if not exactly adulation, of the people.
130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong places particular focus on medical and financial factors. Each chapter begins with an abstract in the style of an academic paper and frequent subtitles help with the location of specific information. As Hong Kong has been heavily involved in a number of pandemic scares in the 21st century, a look at the history of the Hong Kong University Faculty of Medicine that has tackled SARS and various Avian influenzas reveals how historical factors can shape an institution.